The night before leaving for the trip to the village of Ban Loum Kwai to collect more stalagmite samples and survey Tham Dook, we stopped at the night market to pick of some food for 9 people for two days and two nights. We splurged on 16 baguettes and bought some beautiful breads of varying flavors of banana, lemon, ginger… I wanted the taro root, but that wasn’t too appetizing to the rest of the group, understandably.
At 6am, we scrambled to get all of our equipment and bags ready for the 7 am van pick up at the end of the street by the Mekong. Forty five minutes later a van pulled up and took us to the camp where there was yet more waiting around for the original van that was intended to take us to this remote village. Almost 3 hours after our original departure time, we got in the van and realized why they chose this one to make the journey. It was a 1985 Hyundai behemoth that looked like it may have been driven in and out of the Mekong more than a few times. Mick, Kathleen, Stephanie, Phou, Norseng, Michael and I loaded in. If you could strap a few electrodes to my head and harness the power of my stress level, I could power the entire village of Loum Kwai, if they had any electricity.
The van churned up the rocky single track road that tested the definition of the word “road.” Steep mountains rose up on the other side of the valley that plunged to unknown depths a few feet from the “road.” Everybody else seemed to think this was normal and even fun. We rounded a steep corner and had to stop abruptly for a crowd of about 30 men with machetes, most of whom were wearing military clothing. “Okay,” I think I said, “here we go.” I don’t know what I thought was “going,” but it was something I hadn’t experienced before and had no frame of reference in which to decode the foreign signs in front of us. The men were repairing a small wooden bridge. A man in a red Hawaiian shirt was clearly the leader and he seemed to be content with about 3/4 of the guys serving as audience while only a handful pounded away at thick logs with machetes. I pulled out my video camera, which is about as intimidating as their machetes and started filming them work. Many of them stared in confusion and some laughed and said something which I could only imagine was “why would anyone want a picture of this?” Phou explained that they weren’t in the military. Apparently when a member of a family goes into the military, they often give their some of their fatigues to the rest of the family.
Stephanie, whose bravery and energy rival the BTU’s harnessed from my cowardice and fear, asked to give the machete a try. The men seemed to be pretty impressed.
After Phou and Norseng talked to the leader, he told us they would be able to put the bridge together temporarily for us to pass through in about an hour before they stopped for lunch. Puffs of smoke were coming from the jungle where two men were cooking. The slow pace made us all a little pessimistic about finishing before whatever they were cooking was ready to be eaten. Michael disappeared into the brush with the camera to get a few shots of the guys cooking. He came out a little pale and shifty-eyed. He said he’d asked Phou what they were eating and Phou said bluntly, “Dog.” I was incredulous. It was probably a joke or a miscommunication. Michael showed me the picture he took and there were perfectly formed sausage links in intestine casing like you’d see hanging in a butcher’s window. Whatever they were cooking, they were expertly using every last bit of it. I was still not convinced. I stepped into the woods and the two cooks looked up from their fire pit and smiled. One held up a part of the animal that unmistakably confirmed what it was. I remained in the woods a few moments to snap out of my initial shock. I kept telling myself that it was beyond my understanding and judgement. I went back to the van and paced back and forth for a while. Steph and Kathleen gave disappointed, what-are-you-gonna-do? sort of reaction when I told them Phou was right. The people were obviously poor by any standard and they make use of every single natural resource available. Several times on excursion, our guides disappeared into the woods only to come back with a handful of herbs and a papaya or two. The dogs in this area a little wolfy and wild, and I guess they see them as just another part of the environment. (I’m trying really hard to be a neutral.) It’s confusing though that there were a few dogs lingering around unchained who seemed to be companions of the men, unless they were just hanging out for table scraps. I just hope they don’t become the table scraps.
At this point, we were about 6 hours behind schedule. The idea of hiking an hour into the jungle to go to a cave in the dark was more man-versus-nature-adversity than I could handle, and we still had more of that treacherous drive ahead. Phou recommended that Kathleen give them a few thousand kip as incentive to pick up the pace and it worked. Suddenly the men leapt into action and the planks (which were whole trees) were dropped and nailed into place. Phou spoke with the man in the hawaiian shirt to make sure we thanked them sufficiently and he invited us to share their lunch. Phou said he politely declined saying that we had to stick to our schedule. We gratefully barreled over the bridge hearing a few creaks and cracks and plowed through to get momentum up the hill.
When we arrived at the village, a crowd of children in varying states of undress swarmed around the van. Some stared with blank faces and some burst into spasms of excitement at the sight of us. I was amazed at how some of them were carrying their younger siblings with the same affection and responsibility of a parent. I snapped a few pictures and knelt down to show them the images in the viewfinder. Some smiled, some obviously had no idea what in the world they were looking at, and some were just confused or indifferent. I was paging through the pictures when suddenly my whole plane of sight was eclipsed by the wispy haired heads of children. I was completely surrounded and overcome with the breath of fifty children and I panicked and let out a nervous laugh and stood up. One girl had tape all over her face which I assume was a kind of make shift band aid. One boy’s shirt was so dirty, only the faint cartoony block letter spelling out “Robot” was legible. And all of them were in dire need of tissues. I wished we had brought clothes and food, not just candy and pahtonk balls.
Phou worked his diplomatic magic and directed us to the Guest House where Kathleen was to negotiate with the head of the village and try to explain why she came all the way from sunny California to crack off a stalagmite and bring it home. We were told to have lunch. This is how things go here. Herded from hut to van to camp in a fog of half-communication, we trust that eventually things will get done. We took off our shoes and socks and entered the bamboo structure, sat down in the middle of a plastic woven rug and realized someone had to go get the food from the van. Michael had to lace his shoes back up and head back down the ladder and grapple with the van’s broken door handle . He came back and said the banana bread was missing and there were only 6 baguettes. We booed in unison. In the morning rush, we left them back in Luang Prabang. So this left us with one baguette per person, some quickly turning jack fruit, nutela, peanut butter, and jam for the next three days.
A scrappy dog accompanied us through the teak tree farm, the toads burping in the swamp, and up an endless incline to Tham Loum. Norseng lit two orange candles and said a prayer before we started to enter the cave. At this point, I had reached saturation point with adventure. I didn’t even look at the shoulder-width entrance before deciding I didn’t want to go into the cave. Michael bravely started to squeeze through and his head was swallowed up by the constricting hole. He then began to yell a detailed description of how horrible it was. His shoulders were pinned and he had to contort his legs to make it through the s-shaped tunnel. His jeremiad echoed through the entire valley. I waited in the mouth of the cave for about an hour petting our little mascot with a stick, remembering to panic every other minute about snakes.
Stephanie and Michael eventually came squirming back out of the hole with just as much fanfare as before. Kathleen, Mick, and the team had gone the whole kilometer and a half to the end. We waited as the sky darkened. Again, I could power our head lamps with my growing anxiety about making that hike back in the pitch black.
The rest of the team finally disgorged from the hole and we headed back to the village in the dark. The only thing that gave me confidence in our safety was the dog weaving in and out of the jungle presumably looking for snakes and the large spear that our guide had sharpened and brought along. I was feeling quite proud of myself for making it through such primitive terrain when we came upon a mother and her 3 year old girl walking toward us in the dark.
We were invited to spend the night in a newly built cement structure in the middle of the village. It had open wooden slats through which all the village children peaked in at us as we unravelled our sleeping mattresses. As if we hadn’t already gotten to know each other well enough through our endless discussions of the state of our digestive systems, the five of us were now going to sleep in one big nest of blankets under the one available mosquito net. Phou and Norseng managed to be invited into the homes of the villagers. We decided to open a bottle of Jack Daniels before relinquishing to whatever else the night had planned for us. We toasted to the fact that we were there and even the dog joined in. We gave him some peanut butter which he’d obviously never had before. His tongue slurped in and out of his mouth and left dots of Skippy at the end of his chin whiskers, so we named him Skippy. One of the villagers who accompanied us to the cave, Weiweiria Suria, came in and we offered him a drink. He took a sip and his face contorted at the shock of the taste. We all laughed and he continued to drink it slowly.
Somehow Phou, MMAP ambassador, made his way into someone’s kitchen and ended up cooking two ducks for us and for some of the villagers. We were herded once again into the Guest House where an electric generator was buzzing and half the village had gathered to watch over-dramatized Thai soap operas with a lot of slapping and quick zooms onto the heavily foundationed faces of spurned girlfriends. We sat around a bamboo table and Phou brought us a basket of sticky rice, plates of duck and a savory broth that he’d miraculously whipped up. He said it would have been better if he had onions. Considering the circumstances, we were happy to eat something other than a chopstick full of nutela for dinner.
We gathered in a circle with the village leaders and Phou translated Kathleen’s description of the paleo climate research project. She wanted to pay two villagers to go into Tham Loum once a month to collect water samples from the dripping stalagmite and take temperature and humidity readings. After about an hour of mumbling in Lao, we finally landed on an agreement. Michael and Mick had long ago unfolded their legs out of indian style and tried to keep their feet from pointing at anyone. In Lao culture it’s extremely rude to point at anyone with your feet as the lowest part of the human body. Conversely the head is the highest part of the body and it’s bad manners to touch anyone on the head. This was an easier gesture to avoid; although, I think Mick plopped his whole hand like a splayed out frog on the head of one of the villagers to point his gaze toward the centipede in Tham An Mah. We’re not sure if he had to do some spiritual realignment after this insult to his noggin.
That night, we all had to disperse into the darkness of the village to find places to brush our teeth and use the facilities. This presented a bit of a difficulty because there were no facilities. Michael navigated his way with the use of his headlamp behind a hut, where he remembered the hog pen was. He turned the lamp off so the million eyes he imagined trained on him wouldn’t witness this event which is customarily executed behind closed doors, or at least a tree of some kind. He was content with the fact that he was successfully accomplishing the task at hand when a tremendous SNORT from the giant hog startled him to a standing position. As he regained his bearings, the night gave up the sound of sniffing dogs which seemed to surround him in all his vulnerability. He clicked his headlamp back on and turned around to assess his damage and maybe cover it up. All he could tell us was that there was no trace of his “damage” anywhere. It was as if he’d never been there. And a wiry dog skittered away into the dark. He came back to the nest and recounted the events with an outraged incredulity that soon deteriorated into delirious laughter.